Friday, December 18, 2009

An Army of Dawoods

Inevitably, the Wall Street Journal story about Iraqi insurgents intercepting the video feed from Predator drones has attracted much attention. One quibble. Many have followed the WSJ's line that it was done with "$26 off-the-shelf software" i.e. Skygrabber. It's not that simple. The Predator sends its feed to a satellite which then transmits it to a ground station. So you also need a dish, the satellite positioning, and frequency. It's a bit more complicated than just downloading Skygrabber and watching it all on TV.

But anyway, Max Boot of the Center for Foreign Relations blogs for Commentary about it --

This is part of a historical process that I analyzed in my book, War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today:

"It is a truism that new technology, if it proves effective, tends to disseminate quickly…. The process of technological dissemination and nullification has speeded up since the rise in the mid-nineteenth century of such major arms manufacturers as Krupp, Winchester, and Armstrong, which were happy to sell to just about anyone…. Pervasive today are firms that sell dual-use devices such as computers, night-vision goggles, and GPS trackers which can have both military and civil applications. Thanks to their success, may of America’s key Information Age advantages are rapidly passing into the hands of friends and foes alike."

The U.S. has certainly sprinted to a lead in utilizing Information Age technology for military (as well as civil) purposes. But there is no room for complacency. Every new weapons system or surveillance platform we introduce only heightens our reliance on digital networks that are in turn very vulnerable to disruption. Wars of the future will have an important cyber aspect and it will be a major challenge for the Industrial Age bureaucracy known as the Department of Defense to adjust. The latest news about the hacking of the Predator feeds shows just how urgent is our need to stay ahead of our foes on these virtual battlefields.

Is that what his book actually said? His own description of it 3 years ago is a tad different --

Because creativity is so unpredictable, no country can count on making all, or even most, major scientific and technological breakthroughs.

Moreover, few if any technologies, much less scientific concepts, will remain the property of one country for long. France matched the Prussian needle gun less than four years after the 1866 Battle of Königgrätz; Germany matched the British Dreadnought three years after its unveiling in 1906; the USSR matched the U.S. atomic bomb four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a truism that new technology, if it proves effective, tends to disseminate quickly. Today, key American inventions such as computers, night-vision goggles, and GPS trackers are rapidly passing into the hands of friends and foes alike.

The way to gain a military advantage, therefore, is not necessarily to be the first to produce a new tool or weapon. It is to figure out better than anyone else how to utilize a widely available tool or weapon.

That's much more about the futility of believing that there's some way of "staying ahead" of the bad guys -- a recipe for huge defence spending -- and concentrating on getting the basics of existing systems right. Incidentally, Boot doesn't intend it this way, but his description of the decentralized and unpredictable nature of the innovative process and how governments aren't good at it is an oblique tribute to these insurgents. What they did was a tad clever. Which raises the more general point that just as the world's slickest technology might have its limitations against them, so might the world's most brilliant Powerpoint war strategy.

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